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Breathing Life, Breathing Stories

“For your lungs, a year in New York is like smoking a pack a day.” It was 1970, and I was four years old, and this didn’t really make sense to me. How could the air I was breathing be like the cigarettes I saw people smoke on the street? My mother suggested I set a glass of water outside our bathroom window on a cold Manhattan night and see what happened. The next morning, I found a cloudy gray ice cylinder, flecked through with black soot. Air Quality Index: Very Unhealthy

“You can’t even see across the street.” It was 1980, and my Sugarhouse neighborhood was socked in. I was complaining about walking to school when most of my friends got rides, and the awful air seemed a reasonable argument. Nonetheless, I set out into the muck, obscured homes and landmarks and street signs emerging one by one, only as I got close enough. Air Quality Index: Unhealthy

“We can see the Oquirrhs, Matt!” It was 1990, and I was a new mom in Sandy. After weeks of smog, the Salt Lake Valley had cleared, and my baby son and I celebrated with a clear winter day at the zoo. I’d kept him inside during the inversion and we were both relieved to get outside. Air Quality Index: Good

Utah’s air quality is no doubt better than the sooty skies of 1970s New York City, and by many measures, Wasatch Front air is better than it was decades ago. The average annual Air Quality Index is down from Unhealthy for Sensitive to Moderate, and some pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, have decreased significantly since the 1980s and 1990s. But haze, ozone, and dangerous PM2.5 particulates have increased in a frightening way since 1997, in many rural areas as well as the cities, obscuring views in national parks and contributing directly to health problems like pre-term births, miscarriages, and a host of respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular events, and early deaths. As a family-first state, Utah can do better.

It’s complicated, of course. We know that Utah’s beautiful valleys and majestic mountains create temperature inversions naturally, trapping our modern-world pollutants in cold air near the valley floors. And the pollution sources are varied, preventing a one-policy-fits-all fix. Our largest sources of pollution are what everyone suspects—cars, industry, and buildings. Developing sound policies that work in all these areas is no small feat. But we can increase accessibility to public transit and make walkable neighborhoods that encourage car-free transportation. We can make it easier for Utahns to use cleaner vehicles and discourage dirty off-road engines like construction and lawn equipment. We can effectively limit wood burning and require energy-use reporting with home sales to help the market drive efficiency upgrades. We can increase fines for industry polluters and insist on more frequent monitoring and stack testing. As a technology-forward state, Utah can do better.

People are afraid for their health, for their families, and in Breathing Stories: Utah Voices for Clean Air you’ll find their stories, their fears and grief but also the love Utahns share for each other and the beauty of our pretty great state. These are Breathing Stories, and they carry the connections Utahns have to home and their hopes for a clear and healthy future. Surely, Utah can do better.


Kirsten Johanna Allen is a proud and grateful sixth-generation Utahn and executive director at Torrey House Press, Utah’s nonprofit literary publisher. She lives in Salt Lake City and Torrey, Utah. b. 1966

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